The Persistence of Up-ness

Luke 24:44-53
New Hope Fellowship
Ascension Sunday
June 2, 2019
Brent Beasley

The novel Gilead was published in 2004 by Marilynne Robinson. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

The novel is in the form of reflections written by a Protestant minister named John Ames, who is in his 70s, to his young son. John Ames, like his father and grandfather before him, has served for many years as pastor to a small congregation in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. He does not expect to live much longer, and he is writing this memoir for his seven-year-old son.

It is a wonderfully written book, and there is a passage near the beginning where John Ames remembers an incident from when he was a child when he and some of his playmates baptized a litter of cats.

The character Ames writes to his son:
Their grim old crooked-tailed mother found us baptizing away by the creek and began carrying her babies off by the napes of their necks, one and then another. We lost track of which was which, but we were fairly sure that some of the creatures had been borne away still in the darkness of paganism, and that worried us a good deal.

Two or three of the litter were taken home by the girls and made into fairly respectable house cats. Louisa took a yellow one. She still had it when we were married. The others lived out their feral lives, indistinguishable from their kind, whether pagan or Christian no one could ever tell. She called her cat Sparkle, for the white patch on its forehead. It disappeared finally. I suspect it got caught stealing rabbits, a sin to which it was much given, Christian cat that we knew it to be, stiff-jointed as it was by that time.

One of the boys said she should be called Sprinkle. He was a Baptist, a firm believer in total immersion, which those cats should have been grateful I was not. He told us no effect at all could be achieved by our methods, and we could not prove him wrong.

And then this beautiful passage:
I still remember how those warm little brows felt under the palm of my hand. Everyone has petted a cat, but to touch one like that, with the pure intention of blessing it, is a very different thing. It stays in the mind. For years we would wonder what, from a cosmic viewpoint, we had done to them. It still seems to me to be a real question.

There is a reality in blessing, which I take baptism to be, primarily. It doesn’t enhance sacredness, but it acknowledges it, and there is a power in that. I have felt it pass through me, so to speak. The sensation of really knowing a creature, I mean really feeling its mysterious life and your own mysterious life at the same time.

Blessing.

The Gospel of Luke does not end in
tears or
a final embrace of the departing Jesus or
a conclusive goodbye.
It ends in blessing.

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands. He blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

This is the end of Luke’s gospel. It is the moment Jesus ascends to heaven, leaving this earth. And the story of Jesus’ parting must have been a source of comfort and strength to those early Christians. They may have reminded each other and told their children the story again and again: While Jesus parted from us, he was still blessing us.

What it may have suggested to them was that the blessing would never stop, that just because they could no longer see Christ did not mean he was
no longer blessing them,
no longer offering that benediction of his upraised
hands and gracious voice and words.

While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

Let’s talk about this word “up.”

The comedian Jerry Seinfeld has this great routine where he talks about one of the differences between adults and children.

Wait up! That’s what kids say. They don’t say, Wait, they say, Wait up! Hey, wait up! Because when you’re little,
your life is up.
The future is up.
Everything you want is up.
Wait up!
Hold up!
Shut up!
Mom, I’ll clean up!
Let me stay up!

Parents of course are just the opposite. Everything is down.
Just calm down.
Slow down.
Come down here.
Sit down.
Put that down.

I wonder if we adults have grown out of “up.” This “up into heaven” business is problematic for us adults.

As worldly, educated adults, we know that heaven is not really “up there.” It’s not just a place that is really high up in the sky. There’s not really any up or down in space, anyway. Space is multidimensional. And which direction is up from a ball like the earth? If the earth if flat like John would have believed, going “up” makes sense. But when the earth is round…. And given what we now know about the size of the universe, Jesus ascending up into heaven gets us into all sorts of problems such as how high up did he go? Which galaxy?

I can’t help but think of this when I read that Jesus was carried up into heaven. I wonder if we ought to leave behind this notion of “up.” We are adults now, you know.

And yet… I came across a phrase in something written by Thomas Troeger; the persistence of up-ness. And that phrase grabbed my heart—the persistence of up-ness. The direction “up” may have left our cosmology, our understanding of the universe, but it has never left our souls.
Stand up for justice.
Look up in hope.
Lift up your hearts.
Pull yourself up.
I am feeling up today.
Look up at the stars.
The sun is up.
The moon is up.
The surf is up.

There is
some resilience in the heart,
some rising in the soul,
some reaching beyond and above
that will not die,
that will not go away,
that keeps calling to us,
that beckons us beyond ourselves.

How can we explain the persistence of up-ness? I account for it by trusting that when Jesus was carried up into heaven, he was carried into the up-ness that my heart and soul know to be real—just as real as the multidimensional universe.
[Thomas Troeger, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, pp. 521-3]

Now there’s a secret about the persistence of up-ness. This is a hard secret to accept. It is something you have to experience to accept, I think. The secret is this: The way up is the way down. Or the way down is the way up.

We don’t want to see this. Most of us want to only go up and avoid all down. But the deep truth of the universe is that those who have gone down are the only ones who have understood up. Richard Rohr talks about this in one of his books, and the title really says it all: Falling Upward.

Notice the order: falling…up.

In the world, it’s rise and fall. You know, we use that phrase all the time.
The rise and fall of Adolf Hitler.
The rise and fall of the business tycoon.
The rise and fall of the celebrity.
The rise and fall of the professional athlete.
It’s a common story—a story of achieving great success, getting high up the ladder of success, and then stumbling and falling down. A common phrase: rise and fall. Up then down.

Jamie and I watched a documentary on ESPN the other night about Chris Herren. He was a high school basketball star from Massachusetts. He went on to play at Boston College and Fresno State and then ended up playing in the NBA for the Denver Nuggets and Boston Celtics. He was immensely talented. But he had addiction problems. And his story is one of rising up to great heights and then falling down to the depths.

It’s a common story—a story of achieving great success, getting high up the ladder of success, and then stumbling and falling down. A common phrase: rise and fall. Up then down.

But with Jesus, it’s the opposite: down and then up.

Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit (John 12:24). Jesus did not fly straight to heaven once danger came. He suffered and died and then was raised to glory.

The very body of Jesus that ascended up into heaven was marked by deep scars painfully acquired when he was down.

We suffer and die and not just at the end of life. I have been crucified with Christ, Paul said. I bear the death of Christ now. We fall, and from that lowest point, we rise. We fall…and then rise. Down and then up.
[James C. Howell, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, pp.164-8]

My friend Kyle Matthews, the songwriter and performer who has been at some of our youth camps and has been here at Broadway I know, has that great song, “We Fall Down.” In the song Kyle tells the story of a man, struggling along with daily life, looking at a monastery as he passes it by, wondering how those holy men live.

Finally, he sees one of the monks by the gate, and he asks the monk what they do all day. And this holy man says: We fall down, and we get up. We fall down, and we get up. And then he says something that is so crucial for all of us to understand. He says, The saints are just the sinners who fall down…and get up.

We fall, and we rise,
we fall and rise,
fall and rise.
Down then up.

The way up is the way down.

Thomas Merton once said that people may spend their whole lives climbing up the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

Everybody’s on some ladder trying to go up.

The mystery and wonder of God’s grace and salvation is that you mainly experience it when you’ve gotten a few rungs up and realize that it’s leaning against the wrong wall. Or you just fall off the ladder altogether. You have to fail. And fall. And that’s when the
real,
lasting,
meaningful,
life-giving,
persistent
up-ness of God kicks in and becomes a persistent reality.

And so even our falling, even our going down, is blessed.

Jesus was still blessing the disciples as he was carried up into heaven. He had every reason to be cursing them, you know. They had
abandoned him,
denied him,
run off,
even dismissed his resurrection initially as an
idle tale.
They had failed, fallen down. But cursing was not what Jesus left them with.

He left them with blessing. He was blessing them as he departed, and it was a blessing that would continue to fall upon them throughout the rest of their lives.

It’s no wonder the final verses that follow Jesus’ ascension into heaven picture the disciples returning his blessing: And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Blessing begets blessing.

And this is how the Gospel ends: as Thomas Troeger puts it, not with a bang or a whimper, not with curse or judgment, but with the ceaseless blessing of Christ.

In June of 1965, Winston Churchill was asked to give a commencement address at a university in Great Britain. By this time, the great statesman was badly infirmed. In fact, he was within months of his own death. He had to be helped to the podium that day and stood there saying nothing for what seemed like an interminable period.

But then, that amazing voice that had once called Britain back from the brink, sounded for the last time in public, and what he said was, Never, never give up! Never give up! Then he turned and went back to his seat. There was moment of stunned silence, and then everyone rose to his or her feet in admiring applause.

It must be the only commencement address in history to be remembered verbatim by everyone who heard it. What was so powerful about it was that the words were so congruent with the one who said them.

Again and again, Churchill’s career had been pronounced dead, but he kept coming back. Why? Because he, too, had caught in the pages of scripture the persistence of up-ness.

The account of Churchill’s funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral confirms this fact. He had carefully planned it himself and included in it some of the great hymns of the Church and all of the wonder of the Anglican liturgy.

Furthermore, there were two things that he specifically requested at the end that made it unforgettable for every person there. When the benediction had been said from the high altar, silence fell over the packed Cathedral.

A bugler high up in the dome of St. Paul’s had been asked to play the familiar sound of “Taps,” a well-known signal marking the end of something.

Just hearing that tune we understand that it’s time to say goodnight, goodbye. Those haunting notes brought home to everyone there the realization that an era had come to an end, and it was reported that there was hardly a dry eye in the church.

However, as Churchill had requested, after the notes of “Taps” had sounded, another bugler on the other side of the dome, began to play “Reveille.”

It’s time to get up, it’s time to get up, it’s time to get up in the morning.

That final touch caught everyone by surprise, but it revealed where Churchill had gotten the strength across the years to never give up.

He did believe that
up follows down, and
the final sounds of history will not be “Taps” but
“Reveille.”

The next time you need to
stand up or
look up or
lift up your heart,
receive again
the ceaseless blessing of Christ,
Christ’s eternal benediction,
the persistence of up-ness that your heart and soul
know to be as real as anything in the universe.

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands. He blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.

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